On a perfect August evening, with thousands of concertgoers watching from the shore of Muskegon Lake, independent singer/songwriter Holly Starr wasted no time in flat-out owning the stage, bringing energy, volume and a bright smile.
But then she slowed it down. Shared a little. And hinted at a challenge: how she had overcome a battle with self-image.
The music picked up and the concert went on, yet I felt Starr had alluded to a story worth sharing.
After the concert, I reached out.
Now it’s Friday morning, and I take a phone call from Starr, 26, who lives more than 1,000 miles away in Washington state. She’s so easy to talk to. She laughs at my jokes. She answers my questions.
Finally, I ask the question. What was her journey with self-image?
Then a beautiful, inspiring, motivating testimony of what God can do in our lives, if we let him, of course.
Basically, in high school someone made an off-handed comment about the way Starr looked and she twisted its meaning.
“I spent a lot of years trying to control what I ate and what I looked like,” she said.
Her self-image battle spilled over into her music in the song “Undertow”, a fast-paced track about being addicted to a habit and drowning in the storm, which was featured on her 2010 album “Tapestry.” She prayed constantly, tossed things around for months, and asked herself tough questions.
“Do I really believe (God) can heal me or not?” she remembers asking.
Then one day her mindset changed.
“I am in a totally different location now. I experienced the powerful healing of God,” Starr said. “… The God who created the whole world can make anything possible.”
The way she shares, the way she opens up, the way she doesn’t sugarcoat, makes her seem human and makes you feel more human at the same time.
So it’s fitting the title of her new album, which hits the streets today, Sept. 15, is “Human”. The 8-track album (Artist Garden Entertainment), which was funded primarily through a more than $30,000 Kickstarter campaign, is nothing short of amazing.
Authentic lifestyle, authentic lyrics
Unlike many musical contemporaries, the lyrics of “Human” don’t try to convey a superficial, empty, totally unrealistic lifestyle. No luxury brand shout outs, or this is the best night ev-er, or “wild thoughts” references.
Think real life. Relatable. Honest.
In the track “Human” she asks “What if mistakes aren’t such a bad thing/What if they make you who you are?/ What is a story with no struggle?/You can’t see the stars without the dark.” She gives the listener permission to stop trying so hard, putting so much pressure on themselves to be perfect, because, get this, no one is. Sounds kind of like the gospel, doesn’t it?
“It doesn’t come down to what I do …. it comes down to his grace,” Starr said.
Then on “Sailing” Starr wrestles with the death of her grandmother. In fact, she recorded the vocals on the morning of her grandmother’s passing. “Days they turn into years/And we come and go/Here then gone/So cry all your tears/When you got to let go/Still we keep on sailing, sailing, sailing on.”
“It’s a song of mourning,” she said. “Learning how to let go when you don’t want to let go.”
You mean her album is authentic? That’s the word.
Starr said it’s a “stretch of faith” every time she sits down to songwrite. It’s not easy. She’s been deeply influenced by Shawn McDonald, a well-known Christian singer/songwriter approaching 20 years in the business. He’s very vulnerable about his struggles and she respects that.
“I feel like there is a lot of power when we are open with our weaknesses,” she said.
“Authentic music is not something we can accomplish … it is something we are. When we lay ourselves down and truly face what we are then we are able to navigate through our own darkness, which will be different for every human,” McDonald said. “Authenticity is a reflection of humility that comes out naturally when we start to understand what it means to be human. I find this best when I pursue depth and what it means to love God, ourselves and others. I give a thumbs up to Holly and hope she finds this very thing. “
“She is the real deal. Holly is genuine, vulnerable, passionate about music and ministry and really loves people, especially the young girls in the audience who struggle with so many things growing up,” Newton said. “I have seen her being just as engaged, just as available and just as loving offstage as onstage and that means a lot to us.”
Reinventing her sound
Listening to “Human,” after streaming her previous albums for weeks, you notice a significant difference. A change in direction. A risk.
In the past, different producers had different leanings and different limitations, but this time Starr is extra stoked about the final product. The album, she said, combines an EDM pop influence with a strong presence of storytelling. Done her way.
“This is exactly what I want to say, ” she said. “It’s refreshing to me, too… Making an album in the same old way can get old.”
Michigan native and co-producer of Starr’s album, Matthew Parker, is anything but old. He’s 23, an emerging EDM artist, and recently hit #2 on the Billboard Christian Hot AC/CHR Chart for his single “Never Giving Up on You.”
Parker first met Starr in a routine writing session. The rest, as they say, is history.
“We wrote a song and found that we write well together and that Holly, her husband, Chris, and I have a lot of fun just being around each other, making jokes and making good music!” Parker said. “So we went on to write 4 or 5 more songs.”
Starr said the process was super fun, especially since Parker was close in age to her. Because they worked together so well, she often found herself in the zone.
“This is hitting my sweet spot and I want to keep writing,” she recalls about those moments of inspiration.
The chill, upbeat work environment ultimately produced an innovative album, one Parker thinks challenges the status quo in Christian music. It has a message and strong feeling, plus creative, new, fresh production behind it. Or, as he likes to call it, “next level” sound.
“I think Holly would agree with me on this, that the goal with this project was to make music that ‘pushed the envelope’ a bit in Christian music – to make something that followed some of the rules, but bent some of the other rules that needed to be bent,” he said. “I think it’s time for Christian music to sonically take a step (or maybe a couple steps) forward.”
Add songs from this album to a high-end clothing store playlist and they would totally fit in – modern, edgy, upbeat. There’s an underlying energy to them. Makes you want to dance in your cubicle, which I may or may not have done.
It sounds almost like Owl City, The Chainsmokers, Capital Kings, Purity Ring, Justin Bieber and Michelle Branch stopped by the studio to provide input to her music and she listened to them ALL.
I especially loved the synth-laden second single “Bruises,” with Starr’s strong, passion-filled vocals finishing the song in dramatic fashion. Meanwhile, on “Say Yes” her vocals are toned down a bit, but the EDM influence is turned up, producing a delightful, surprising, all-around chill track near the end of the album.
Yet my favorite song, sound-wise, has to be “Run the Race (Matthew Parker remix)”. The energy and variety is killer. In fact, and I can’t confirm this, but it sounds like Starr was leaving the studio, it was 1 a.m., and she handed Parker a Venti Starbucks coffee, with the instructions “Do your thing, Matt. Do. Your. Thing.”
And he crushed it.
Ignoring the critics
The album’s lead single, “Run The Race”, has amassed more than 1 million streams on Spotify and been featured on the service’s Top Christian Tracks playlist, according to her camp.
Millions are just the way Starr rolls, with her music videos and video blogs raking in 4.4 million views to date on YouTube.
“Starr’s gorgeous vocals are hidden behind incessant computerized drum beats,” Timothy Yap writes. “And with a voice as powerful as hers, is there a need for auto-voicing? Why not allow her voice to rip and tear through the notes? … Shame on the production.”
“I am proud of her that she has stuck to her beliefs and convictions and stayed the independent route,” he said. “There just is so much more freedom in this route. The corporate mindset seems to kill a lot of young artists and convince them they need to be something they aren’t.”
“I BELIEVE in this album,” she wrote in her Aug. 30 Instagram post. “I BELIEVE God will use it to grow his kingdom on earth. And I BELIEVE Human will be an even more impactful project than any in my past in large part because this was a MASSIVE teamwork effort.”